NEITHER a borrower nor a lender be. Wise words of advice for looking after your finances there. Not so much help if you happen to be a librarian.

Shakespeare, thankfully, stuck to writing plays and left the business of loaning and taking out books to someone else. This coming week is National Libraries Week and to celebrate this, Salisbury Library, Salisbury Cathedral Library, Sarum College Library and the Royal School of Church Music Library have come together for Salisbury’s Secret Libraries: a fascinating week of talks, displays and tours, revealing the history and treasures of these wonderful institutions.

The oldest of our libraries is the Cathedral Library and I was lucky enough to be shown round by cathedral archivist, Emily Naish. Accessed by a stone spiral staircase off the corner of the South Transept, the library was built in 1445, though many of the books are much older: the collection dates back to when Bishop Osmund started a library at Old Sarum in the 11th century. Such was the value of the books that the library was originally a ‘chained’ one – as the name suggests, each book was chained to the shelf to stop anyone stealing them.

Today, the unchained library holds about 10,000 books, and while predominantly religious in subject, there are many other titles in the collection as well. Emily showed me a copy of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene from 1611, the (then forbidden) works of Galileo, and a seventeenth century ‘Operation of Medicines’ full of eye-watering, pre-anaesthetic chapters on purging and other techniques. There was even an extremely detailed tome on cider making, describing using every type of apple and pear you could think of. Reward, perhaps, after a particularly long sermon.

Across the Cathedral Close at Sarum College Library, their collection of rare books includes an early seventeenth century Breeches Bible – so called, because in this version of Adam and Eve, ‘the eies of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.’ Quite how they got hold of a needle and thread, never mind a working knowledge of seventeenth century fashion designs, is never quite explained.

Salisbury’s main library, meanwhile, dates back to 1890. In 1850, the Public Libraries Act gave local boroughs the power to set up free local libraries, paid for through local taxation. But while many towns, such as Winchester, set up libraries immediately, Salisbury resisted the extra penny on the rates needed to pay for one (leading the campaign against the library was, I’m sorry to say, the Salisbury Journal). Eventually, in 1890, the library was finally set up, originally in Endless Street. Fifteen years later it moved to Chipper Lane, into a purpose-built location, partly funded by Andrew Carnegie – one of 3,000 libraries that the Scottish philanthropist contributed to.

Here it stayed until the mid 1970s, when it moved to its present-day setting, orange and brown chequered carpet and all. Philip Tomes (pictured above), the current library manager, told me how over the years the site has been a pub, a market house and, for a period in the 1960s, the home of Saturday afternoon wrestling in Salisbury. Today the library is the largest in Wiltshire – in terms of the collection of books, number of issues and visitors (just under 400,000 last year).

Philip explained how it is unusual for a city such as Salisbury to have one single library rather than branches – that was originally a political decision to get people into the city centre, but one that has helped insulate Salisbury against the cuts that other cities have suffered from.

This is just a fraction of the stories that the week’s events will reveal. If you’d like to discover more, then a visit to your local library is well overdue.

Salisbury’s Secret Libraries runs from October 7-14. For details visit Salisbury Library or online at